“Give me a word.” This is what novices or spiritual seekers would ask of elders in the early monastic tradition. The “word” offered was most often a line of scripture; the goal was for the seeker/student to put the biblical word into practice in daily life. As we move from Lent into the Great Fifty Days of Easter, we will encounter Jesus in our Gospel texts each week and collectively ask to be given “a word” not just to ponder, but to practice in our lives. Words like “peace,” “abide,” “love,” “forgive,” “witness,” and even “eat” are worthy of sustained practice. Join us as, together, we seek to let the Word speak to us and through us.
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, May 23, 2021, Pentecost Sunday.
Texts: Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27
First there was that time when Spirit moved across the face of the deep at the beginning of all things; Spirit blew as wind, as breath, ruach, and creation came into being.
Then there was the way Spirit rested upon Moses and Joshua giving strength and guidance to lead from slavery to freedom.
Prophets down through the ages were filled with Spirit as they called people back to God’s way of love and justice.
Ezekiel prophesied Spirit breathing new life into dry bones of a broken community. (Ez 37.1-14)
Joel prophesies of a time—after a great suffering, a time of turning, of restoration and new hope—a time when Spirit will be poured out upon all flesh—women and men, young and old, people of every social status and caste. (Joel 2.28-29)
John the Baptizer prophesied that the One who was coming would baptize with Holy Spirit and fire.
Spirit descended like a dove at Jesus’ Baptism and naming as beloved, that moment when Jesus crossed the threshold into a new life of public witness and ministry, filled with Spirit.
And in Jesus’ first recorded sermon, he took up the text from Isaiah that read,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19)
Before Jesus died, he told his disciples that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit…will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you…the Advocate will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify…” (Jn 14:26, 15:26-27) Before Jesus left the earth for the second time (we heard that story last week), he told his followers to stay in Jerusalem and to wait for the promise: baptism with Holy Spirit.
And then the day of Pentecost arrives, a Jewish day of festival celebrating God’s provision in the harvest and on that same day, we are told, the time is full, the heavens can no longer hold the weight of the power that wants to flow forth, and Spirit breaks through like a rushing wind and rain—pouring down upon those who had stayed together, waiting and watching and trusting that the promise would come. And Spirit’s power flowed, filling every single one, including all, excluding none. Spirit power flowed in all the ways She eternally does, inspiring bold leadership and liberation from injustice, fear, and division, giving guidance and prophetic speech to those who feel uncertain and unequipped, filling dry bones with life and recreating the body of broken community. In the wake of this revolution of grace, the people are soaked in a baptism of Belovedness, on fire with the life and love they are given, and newly anointed for ministry as none other than the body of Christ!
This moment is a significant turning point in the story of our God’s activity in the world. Obviously, the day of Pentecost is NOT the entry point for Holy Spirit into the story! But in this moment, God is doing a new thing. Spirit is, once again, inspiring a new creation, what we often call the “birth of the church.”
Recently, I had an email appear in my inbox with the heading, “After 2020 every church is a new church.” And on this Pentecost Sunday, I’m laser focused on what it means for the church not just to celebrate a birthday but to experience a fresh pentecost—to be a new church. Don’t panic! I’m not saying that Foundry won’t be Foundry. After 2020 every church is assessing the shape and mode of congregational life after quarantine. But, beyond and deeper even than that, it is so clear we need renewal—in the United Methodist Church, the Church universal, and in our own congregation. We know there are things to be addressed, injustice and divisions and demonization and encrusted systemic racism, misogyny, homophobia, and every other “ism” that we humans have perfected. And the world is in a crucible moment, a moment of birth pangs. There is a push for newness, for change, for justice, for equity, for peace and friendship and healing and collaboration and common sense—both within and outside the church. And there is pushback and backlash to what is trying to be born. We need Spirit power to give us fresh energy and insight, creative vision, and new courage for such a time as this. As we stand in the midst of the crucible fire and the winds of change, on the brink of re-engaging in both familiar and new ways of gathering as a congregation, what does it mean for us to experience new life as the church?
Over the past years, a common hashtag on social media is #SayHerName or #SayHisName. This is a call to remember and to lift the names of persons who have been killed by acts of racist violence. It is a rallying cry to not let their lives be forgotten or their deaths be in vain. Saying the names of those who’ve been killed is a way to rouse energy and stay clear about the work to be done for justice and creation of beloved community. And as I think about where we are in this moment, I hear myself saying “Say his name!” The name I’m talking about is Jesus.
A couple of years ago, I gave a lecture at Drew Theological School and another presenter was Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III who brought to my attention the Barna studies which show broad appreciation for Jesus. I was struck by the ways the studies show a majority of people have positive feelings and thoughts about Jesus. Though something I’ve found in many so-called liberal churches is that people don’t want to talk about Jesus—Christ maybe, but not Jesus. For some it’s because they associate the name with forms of church they want nothing to do with. For others, Jesus is too specific; people might feel excluded. I appreciate that these perspectives may come from a lovely sensitivity to friends of other faiths or grow out of centuries of bad Christology. But mercy, we throw Jesus out (the one folks respect and are drawn to) and then wonder why all our brilliant fancy programs and plans and organizational models aren’t bringing growth and transformation. I’m not saying the name is a magic word, but the scandal of particularity that is Jesus, the cross of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, the in-a-real-incarnate-bodiness of Jesus, the love of God embodied in Jesus, the justice of Jesus—that gives us our most practical and concrete example of what our lives and our life together can be when we open ourselves to be Spirit-infused and born anew. The name of Jesus is our rallying cry, the life, teachings, death, and resurrection, are what keep us clear about the work we are called to do and who we are called to be.
We are called and created by the power of Spirit to be the Body of Christ, by the grace of God and in the name and Way of Jesus, to offer a vision for life and life together that sets people free and sets hearts on fire with compassion and courage and a willingness to sacrifice things, face hard truths, and even suffer for the good of another. We are called by the grace of God to break into the chaos of this moment with a grounding word of identity and connection, into the stress and strain and striving with a word and way of peace. We are called to remind people that the worst thing is never the last thing, to stand up to the dehumanizing “isms” in ourselves and others with the truth that will finally set us all free; we are called right into the center of the demonizing fray to proclaim that all human life has dignity and sacred worth because all are children of God.
I’m not suggesting that the church is the only community called to engage in such a way or that the church has all of this sorted. Lord knows we’re so often a part of the problem—agents of empire rather than of Spirit-fueled justice and mending. But we as the church have a particular call and it’s important and it’s needed. I’m suggesting that to be new really means to remember what’s been our call from the beginning, to #SayHisName, to testify to the way of life we are given in and through Jesus by the power of Holy Spirit, to cultivate a community of faith that’s at least trying to be humble and wise and sacrificial and just—a community that creates space for persons to become more human and less reptilian, to become more like Jesus.
My dear colleague Melissa Maher serves a community in Houston, Texas called “Mercy Street.” The community is diverse in many ways including a large population of folks in recovery from addiction. She says, “We call ourselves Hope Dealers. Former dope dealers… now connecting to the Hope Supplier.” Mercy Street’s self-understanding includes things like “we are all works in progress,” “this is a messy community where we will sometimes disappoint one another,” “we don’t run from community, instead we lean-in and trust that giving ourselves towards love in Christ really can make a difference in our lives and our relationships.” I want to be part of a “Hope Dealer” church.
Some folk may never be part of such Christian communions, having their own deep and beautiful spiritual paths and practices or bearing too many scars from experiencing perversions of the Christian story. But even for those who will never actively participate, simply knowing that such communions exist is a powerful witness, a testimony that there is a God in the world who still cares and can accomplish miracles after all. Because as I once heard someone say, a miracle isn’t when God does what we want, but when we do what God wants! So let this day be a fresh Pentecost for us. Let’s claim and gather around the simple gifts of our faith; let’s speak, live, act, give, and pray in the name of Jesus, and by the power of Spirit, experience a miracle. Even new life. May it be so!